SOUTH PADRE ISLAND, Texas — When Gale Prince tells companies they’re just one field harvest, packing line run, or even a carton away from a produce recall, they should take notice.
Prince, dubbed the “Dean of Product Recalls,” has overseen hundreds of produce and other food recalls, first at the Kroger Co. and now as president and founder of Sage Food Safety Consultants, Cincinnati.
“This is not the other guy’s problem,” Prince told attendees at the Food Safety Traceability and Recall Management Workshop, which on Aug. 17 kicked off the three-day Texas Produce Convention.
Prince said a produce recall takes place every 5.8 days on average, and there’s been 87 of them in 2011 as of early August.
While cantaloupe, lettuce and sprouts are the leading recalled products, the popularity of fresh-cut apple slices earned them the fourth spot on the recall list from 2008-10, according to Food and Drug Administration numbers.
Participants learned from a first-person account of some of the pitfalls of recalls through Richard Hill, an Edinburg attorney who assisted J&D Produce, Edinburg, through two recalls of parsley and cilantro late last year.
Hill stressed how important it is to not only know who your customers are through traceability, but what they do to your product once they take possession. On the cilantro recall, a Detroit distributor was breaking down cartons of the herb, bunching and rebranding them. That made tracing them through a recall more difficult.
“If somebody’s doing something to your product and you don’t know it, can you defend it?” he said. “Or if they’re doing something you don’t authorize, you might want to think about how you can protect yourself.”
It also raised the question: With the extra handling involved in repacking the cilantro, what food safety practices did that distributor have? As J&D produce found out later through a Freedom of Information Act request, there was no testing done at the Detroit facility.
“I think one of the issues that’s prevalent out there, is when you start trying to find out where it came from,” Hill said about recalls in general. “Look at the tomato/jalepeno case. Those folks got hammered and they were innocent.
Hill referred to the 2008 salmonella outbreak that was initially blamed on tomatoes, leading to millions of dollars in losses by tomato companies. The culprit later turned out to be jalapenos from Mexico, but by that time, the damage was done.
“You don’t want that problem,” Hill said. “You want to be able to say, ‘It’s not me, leave me alone.”
Dave Gombas, vice president for scientific and technical affairs for the United Fresh Produce Association, updated attendees on the effort to harmonize auditing standards, so different third-party auditors are working towards a single standard. A Technical Working Group has come up with a set of harmonized standards, he said, and another committee is being formed to focus on auditor training and “real-time interpretation” of the standard.
Ray Prewett, executive vice president of the Texas Vegetable Association, said the food safety and traceability session was just one step in the industry’s efforts to educate growers and shippers, and it follows a food safety conference this spring in Austin.
“I think we learned from the session that folks need to think about food safety more, and it’s a good start on that,” Prewett said. “We obviously want to do a lot more food safety education events for what’s coming down the pike from the Food Safety Modernization Act.”